Rural Southern Baptist church welcomes Catholic congregation

Pastor Buck Tidwell (left) of Tiny Town Baptist Church in Guthrie, Ky., shares a friendship with Fr. Frank Ruff, a retired priest who still leads worship for a Catholic congregation that is temporarily sharing worship space with the welcoming Baptists. Fr. Frank is well known for his ecumenical relationships, having spent decades relating closely to Southern Baptists.

Pastor Buck Tidwell (left) of Tiny Town Baptist Church in Guthrie, Ky., shares a friendship with Fr. Frank Ruff, a retired priest who still leads worship for a Catholic congregation that is temporarily sharing worship space with the welcoming Baptists. Fr. Frank is well known for his ecumenical relationships, having spent decades relating closely to Southern Baptists.

GUTHRIE, Ky. — God’s providence can often be found where it seems least likely. Such is the case for the Catholic community in this small town in western Kentucky.

In February a fire engulfed Sts. Mary & James Catholic Church here. The blaze (an “electrical fire”) originated in the attic above the church hall and spread to the adjoining sanctuary. Thankfully, no one was hurt, but damage to the structures was total.

“That church had been there a long time, and it became part of the community,” said Buck Tidwell, pastor of nearby Tiny Town Baptist Church. “Even folks from other denominations felt like they had lost something.”

Guthrie sits on the edge of two worlds. It is in a county so rural that is common to see tractors in line at the bank drive-through. The smell of freshly spread manure often wafts up from the fields.

Yet, Guthrie is a few short miles from the sprawling retail landscape of Clarksville, Tenn. It is a town with modern influences but small enough that “everybody knows most everybody else,” as locals say. Hospitality is a way of life.

Five churches and two civic organizations offered space for the homeless Catholic community. The whole experience became an example of Christian collaboration following the fire.

“Protestant ministers and Amish people came running during the fire,” said one Catholic parishioner named Anita. “Before the roof collapsed, they rescued everything: the altar, baptismal font, piano and the big cross.”

“It was a sight to see a Baptist minister carrying out a statue of the Blessed mother!” she added.

At the mayor’s invitation, the Transportation Museum was the first stop for this itinerant community, where they celebrated Mass for several months. However, Deacon Heriberto Rodriguez, parish life coordinator, said: “We were forgetting our reverence in that space.”

So they moved to Tiny Town, a Southern Baptist congregation that had offered meeting space from the beginning. “Our congregation was all for it,” said pastor Buck.

Thus began a warm relationship as the two distinct church communities shared the same space. Respect, representatives said, has been key. Great care is taken to reach out to each other, engage in fellowship, and just be good neighbors.

Weekend worship has become streamlined. The Catholic Hispanic community prepares for Saturday Vigil Mass by assembling a makeshift altar and protecting the Baptist community’s belongings.

“They really work on that,” shared Fr. Frank Ruff, retired pastor who still regularly leads Catholic worship on Sunday. “They strip the pews before Mass. The fact is that a 2-year-old is just hard on a book.”

The Catholic English-speaking community makes sure the space is cleaned and returned to its original setting after their Mass on Sunday morning. Then the Baptist community arrives for their own Sunday school and worship.

The arrangement is elegant and straightforward. However, when something appears effortless it is often a testament to the hard work that goes into it.

“It teaches us how to work together,” explains pastor Buck. “We have to plan out everything.”

A Baptist church member, Sandy, who manages the sound system, said: “We have learned to keep a calendar. We just work it out. We feel good to be able to share.”

Sandy’s friend Mary Charles, a Catholic parishioner, agreed: “This congregation has just been wonderful to us. There are a few things I miss by not having our own space, but that is just part of it. We are open and gracious with each other.”

Pastor Buck said the Baptist congregation wants to make sure their Catholic guests feel at home. They invite them now to their own events.

Likewise, the Catholic community is always looking for ways to return the favor. So they treated the Baptists to a community celebration. Several Catholics attended the Baptist worship service while others decorated the fellowship hall and prepared food.

This growing relationship at Tiny Town Baptist Church has opened new doors between Christians here. Deacon Heriberto has been particularly impressed.

“I have never had an ecumenical experience like this before,” he said. “It is very significant.”

“We as a Catholic community work on our relationship with God very well, but sometimes we forget about doing things with our neighbors,” he added. “Now, we have a relationship. We have to remember the Great Commandment to love God and neighbor this way.”

Fr. Julio Barrera, a priest from nearby Hopkinsville, Ky., and a native of Mexico, leads the Hispanic community in worship in Guthrie.

“I think we can see the grace of God working here,” he said. “It speaks not only of the Baptists but of the whole community of Guthrie. They generously offered their church property in order for us to continue in our faith.”

One Catholic parishioner, Jim, marveled at such an ecumenical spirit.

“I grew up before Vatican II, and something like this could never happen back then,” he said, referring to the sweeping Catholic Church reforms in the early 1960s. “I could not be a Boy Scout because the church that sponsored us was Methodist, and we were not allowed in the sanctuary. That is how far the Church has come.”

The partnership in Guthrie is the fruit of many years of good work. Pastors in this small town have worked together for years as part of a ministerial association. They sponsor joint services on Thanksgiving and Martin Luther King Jr. holidays, and minister to the community together in various ways.

Fr. Frank has been a lifelong advocate for positive relationships between Christian denominations. It is common for him to visit churches all over Todd County and build warm relationships with other pastors.

He is a friendly and familiar face in a part of the country where Catholics and other Christians often have a distant relationship, and where anti-Catholic sentiment can still flare up.

“Fr. Frank is the first Catholic priest I have ever sat down with and gotten to know,” said pastor Buck.

One wonders if the response in Guthrie might have been different without all these years of positive relationship building and warm regard.

“Churches need to work together instead of against each other,” says Buck. “It’s not about Catholic, Baptist or Methodist — the bottom line is we are God’s people.”

Deacon Heriberto said the community of Tiny Town Baptist Church is impressive.

“Their faith is really strong and they treat people equally,” he said. “We are all Christians. We just express our faith differently.”

Pastor Buck offered similar sentiments: “The Catholic members are God’s children, just like we are God’s children. I love them everyone. They welcome me in, wave at me and shake my hand constantly. We worship the same God; let’s do what we are supposed to do to grow his kingdom.”

It is not lost on these cooperative Christians that Jesus prayed “that all who believe may be one” (John 17:21). While others struggle with Christian unity, the experience in this rural town in western Kentucky speaks volumes about the importance of getting to know each other as people of faith.

“You have to show Christ through relationship,” said pastor Buck.

One Catholic parishioner, Roger, said he expressed his appreciation to some Baptist members for their hospitality. Their response, he said, was: “This is God’s church!”

That sentiment is easy to find at Tiny Town Baptist Church where it echoes like a mantra and is practiced as a way of life.

“This [experience] is bringing the whole community closer together,” said pastor Buck. “It has really been a blessing.”

This may be a tiny town, but it has a big heart. NFJ

Story and photo by Frank Lesko

Frank Lesko is director of Catholic-Evangelical Relations at Glenmary Home Missioners. The Catholic Diocese of Owensboro (Ky.) is planning to rebuild the church at a new site. It will combine with St. Susan Catholic Church in nearby Elkton to form St. Francis of Assisi parish. Parishioners will continue to use the previous site in Guthrie for outreach to persons in need and perhaps create a park there someday.